July 13, 2013

BOAT REFUGEES IN ART: Inspired by the anniversary of the sinking of Cuba's "13 De Marzo" tugboat victims on this day in 1994

On July 13, 1994, at around three in the morning under the cover of darkness, around seventy men, women, and children boarded a recently renovated tugboat “13 deMarzo" with the intention of escaping the ninety-miles across the Straits of Florida to reach freedom in the United States. 

The group quietly boarded in the night and it was 3:15 A.M. when they began to make their way out of Havana/s harbor. Immediately, a tugboat belonging to the the Cuban state enterprise initiated a chase, followed by two others.

The three pursuing tugboats sprayed high-pressure water at the 13 deMarzo and at about seven miles out to sea began ramming against the refugee tugboat. Although the refugees had stopped and signaled their willingness to surrender and turn back, the relentless attack continued. In desperation, parents held their children up in the air and pleaded for their lives under the search lights. But, the attack continued. The powerful streams from hoses scattered the refugees all over deck, ripped clothing off,
and tore children from their parents' arms. Some were swept into the ocean immediately.

The 13 deMarzo was now taking in water from the incessant ramming. Although it had stopped its engine, the Polargo 5 rammed it decisively one last time and the 13 deMarzo began to sink. The doors to the machine room and cargo hold were blocked by water as several trapped passengers desperately pounded on the walls and ceilings and as children wailed. Unable to budge the door open all those trapped below drowned and then at around 4:50 A.M. the tugboat sank.

The three pursuing boats then began circling the survivors, creating wave turbulence and eddies for around forty-five minutes as though hoping to drown the remaining passengers. Less than half survived. Exhausted groups of rescued passengers were kept at high seas until around 11A.M. When the order was received, they were then taken to a Naval Base at Jaimanitas, near Havana. The men were put into one cell where they were detained. The women and children were put into another cell, where they were interrogated and then sent home.  The men were transferred to Havana's State Security headquarters and many were kept in detention several weeks and some for up to 8 months. All were given psychotropic drugs, visited by psychologists, and subjected to interrogations with the purpose of making them relay the story as an accident.

This day is remembered with sadness by many of Florida's Cuban-Americans.
Reference: Maria Werlau, "Cuba: The Tugboat Massacre of July 13, 1994" at http://www.scribd.com/doc/15969852/Cuba-The-Tugboat-Massacre-of-71394-M-Werlau-307

This oil, Refugees at Sea, by Odd Nerdrum, painted in 1979, depicts the South Vietnamese escaping victimization as boat refugees in the late 70s. "I wanted to paint a picture of mankind in a boat, as a sign," said Nerdrum. "I remember that the sketch became more like a funeral on the sea. But after a while...I changed the sketch and made it more of a blend of funeral voyage and a kind of movement of hope--there was a future in store."

After losing his mother with whom he'd abandoned ship, Elian Gonzalez made international news coming ashore in Miami in an inner tube where he was carried by supporters to the home of his American relatives on April 3, 2000. This mural honoring Elian was painted by Humberto Gonzalez. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Raft of the Medusa, painted by Theodore Gericault in 1819, is a classic of French Romanticism. The painting, now in the Louvre, depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate M├ęduse, which ran aground off the coast of Mauritania on July 5, 1816. At least 147 people were set adrift on a hurriedly constructed raft; all but 15 died in the 13 days before their rescue, and those who survived endured starvation, dehydration, and cannibalism. The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain perceived to be acting under the authority of the recently restored monarchy.

This "re-enactment" of "The Raft of Medusa" was created by Adad Hannah in 2009.

Robert Blackburn, (1920 – 2003), Refugees, 1939. Lithograph, 15 x 19 ¾ inches. North Carolina Central University Art Museum, Durham, NC. Gift of Christopher Massey.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Central University Art Museum, Durham, NC.
Refugees is a lithographic drawing by Robert Blackburn, the son of Jamaican immigrants, who moved to Harlem at the age of six and learned his art from the legacies of the Harlem Renaissance. Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell once remarked that Blackburn invented the word 'multicultural.' He is often invoked as a black artist of the WPA, and he mentored countless artists in printmaking. Refugees was created when Blackburn was just 19 years old and reflects his early social consciousness. The piece captures life of black Americans suffering from a crippling economic Depression and the 1937 floods in the Ohio-Mississippi River Valley, which affected over rural 40,000 families.

Perhaps the most poignant visual of all is this...of an empty boat adrift on a large sea. Painted by Michigan artist David Jay Spyker. "In the end, it’s about personality, what’s in your heart, what you love – you know, that’s what makes your art great, that’s what gives it feeling. Without all of that coming through, what’s the point?"

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